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by Vault Careers | March 15, 2011


Having any job is better than being unemployed. Having any job is better than being unemployed. What’s better than being unemployed? Having a job. Any job.

Repeating conventional wisdom—no matter how, or how often—unfortunately does not make it true. And the piece of "wisdom" above is no exception—at least according to a study by the Australian National University in Canberra, which found that people with "poorer" jobs had worse mental health than those who were unemployed.

Or as the study's authors put it: "In fact, we found that moving from unemployment to a job with poor psychosocial quality was associated with a significant decline in mental health relative to remaining unemployed."

The study's findings are of particular interest because research in the field has typically only compared the mental health of people with jobs to those who are unemployed—with little attempt made to separate the quality of the jobs.

And the majority of that previous research has found that, on the whole, employed people enjoy better mental health than the unemployed—the sort of findings that give rise to statements like those in the opening paragraph.

As the overview of the study's findings puts it:

"Overall, unemployed respondents had poorer mental health than those who were employed. However the mental health of those who were unemployed was comparable or superior to those in jobs of the poorest psychosocial quality."

At a time when unemployment is still breaking all kinds of records—not least for average duration—it pays to keep that kind of information in mind. Perhaps you would indeed be better off—health-wise, at least—dealing with the stress of a job search rather than taking a job with "adverse psychosocial work conditions."

Just in case you're wondering what those are, here are a few suggestions thrown up by the study:

  • • High job demands
  • • Low decision latitude or control
  • • Job strain
  • • A lack of social support at work
  • • Effort-reward imbalance
  • • Job insecurity

As you can see, those definitions don't limit the type of job under discussion, or the type of person likely to hold it. A position that requires an MBA holder to put in long hours meeting the ever-changing whims of a demanding boss or client could just as easily be classified as "poor" as the most menial drudgery. The challenge for job seekers—all job seekers—is to figure out the difference before accepting a position, and to be prepared to turn down a job that seems like it falls short on the psychosocial scale.

No matter what the conventional wisdom says.

Read More:

Abstract of the Australian National University study. (Subscription required for access to full article)
Career Transition After a Layoff

--Phil Stott,